“Come, Holy Spirit — Renew the Whole Creation”

Observations on the 7th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra, Australia

by Robert McNaughton

Canberra—an Aboriginal word meaning “the meeting place” is the capital of Australia and a beautiful site in February more there is to be done. Orthodox service was divisive for many and tells us how much—for an international gathering.

Over 4,000 persons from more than 100 nations came together for the 7th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, a body now composed of 317 member churches. These, and many other descriptions and facts are available in the various reports that have been written about the 7th Assembly including a fine report by Robert K. Johnston in the May, 1991 issue of The Covenant Companion. I commend to you, also, the WCC journal One World ($21 annually) and the more scholarly quarterly The Ecumenical Review ($22.50 annually). Both are available from the U.S. Office of the WCC, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 915, New York, NY 10115-0050, or telephone (212) 870-2528.

As many reports have been and are being written, in this report I want to make some highly personal observations.

1. Pietists have sometimes been accused of isolating themselves from the issues and problems of society while seeking personal salvation. I live and work daily in the presence of two agencies that bear witness to the commitment that flows out of personal renewal: The Children’s Home of Cromwell, Connecticut and Pilgrim Manor/Covenant Village retirement home. In addition, a number of our people are involved with the third Covenant social service agency in the East, The New England Seaman’s Mission. Thus, the facts belie the reputation.

Despite what some would have us believe it is also true that Covenanters have an ecumenical spirit. The facts belie the reputation. (Our problem has been that some among us have been too narrow in their understanding of “We are companions of all those who fear thee.”) I couldn’t have been more surprised to discover the number of people present in Canberra with Covenant connections—I compiled a list of 28 persons who were delegates, observers, visitors, advisors, or WCC staff—and to learn that many world Christians know the Covenant through the involvement of some of our leaders. The Covenant Church of Sweden was among the founders of the WCC in 1948 and has always been represented among the leadership. Our Swedish colleagues fail to understand why the American Covenant is not a member. In addition, there were representatives from our missionary churches in the Congo, Zaire, and Ecuador, including Professor Michel Moukouyou Kimbouala, who was elected to a seven-year term on the WCC Central Committee. The President of the Covenant has been present at all the previous six Assemblies and President Eaul Larsen was scheduled to attend this 7th Assembly, but last-minute pressures forced a change.

At its best, the Covenant is truly ecumenical and is not afraid of exposing its work and thinking to the scrutiny of others.

2. The Assembly style is a good balance of worship, study, reflection, and debate. Influenced by music and liturgy from all over the world, worship is exciting and deeply moving, though preaching may not be as evenly strong as we’re accustomed to expecting. Celebrating the Lima Liturgy was a powerful experience for everyone; being denied the Eucharist at the Orthodox service was divisive for many and tells us how much more there is to be done.

Advance reading and discussion help prepare one for the daily gatherings of smaller and larger groups. Each delegate and observer is assigned to one of ten subsections within one of four sections, and these groups work intensely for many hours. The documents that result from this democratic process are only as strong as the leadership and participation in each subsection. If the document fails to reflect accurately one’s own view and understanding, it may be because of one’s unwillingness to enter vigorously enough into the discussion.

Anyone who has attended a Covenant Annual Meeting will feel comfortable with the Plenary debates—although they are a bit more complicated by language and size. All documents were printed in four languages and there was simultaneous oral translation in 11 tongues. Laughter and tears, anger and frustration, hope and disappointment, reconciliation and love—all these, and more, were a part of the daily experience.

3. American Christianity tends to be unitarian in worship, piety, and action. In my experience Pietists have tended to direct their prayers primarily to the second person of the Trinity and we are not alone in this. This emphasis has also been true of five of the seven WCC Assemblies. The first Assembly, held in 1948 after a delay of several years due to World War II, had the appropriate theme “Man’s Disorder and God’s Design.” The next five assemblies all had a Christological theme, such as “Jesus Christ—the Light of the World.” For the first time the focus was on the third rson of the Trinity: “Come, Holy Spirit—Renew the Whole Creation.”

Also for the first time, the theme was expressed as a prayer. Like the theme, each subtheme was in the form of an intercession: “Giver of Life—Sustain Your Creation!”; “Spirit of Truth—Set us Free!”; “Spirit of Unity Reconcile Your People!”; “Holy Spirit—Transform and Sanctify Us!”

Perhaps the emphasis on the Holy Spirit will prove to be a helpful corrective and bring a rebirth of Trinitarian theology. Still, the Assembly failed to take adequate advantage of the Pentecostal churches around the world despite the theme. And though there are some such churches in the membership of the WCC, there is a good deal of ecumenical cautiousness among Pentecostal bodies. Their willing participation in the 7th Assembly could have significantly shaped both process and outcome. (This is another sound reason for the Covenant to unite with the WCC—to have a member’s voice in fashioning and managing theology and action!)

4. Nothing was more satisfying to me than to see the results of many months of effort come to fruition as four North Park Theological Seminary students, led by Professor F. Burton Nelson, thoughtfully and enthusiastically participated in the events. Over 300 persons contributed to the cost of this exciting project, which was initiated by the Covenant•· Interchurch Relations Commission. Professor Nelson taught a: seminary course on ecumenism, and a faculty committee selected four of the students for this study trip. Each student was heavily involved in the daily schedules as well as several other meetings that were arranged. A substantial paper was required of each student to complete the course.

Nearly 200 youths from around the world served the Assembly as “Stewards.” Wearing distinctive red hats and scarves, they were easily identified and, in addition to distributing papers and managing other such matters, they were a ready source of information and help. There is no reason why Covenant youth could not be present among them. What a wonderful experience of cross-cultural exchange and exposure to theology, worship, and service! I’m convinced that the Interchurch Relations Commission and the Covenant Department of Christian Education should work together in making it possible for Covenant young people to become stewards at the next Assembly.

5. The variety and diversity of the 4,000 people present was thrilling and somehow deeply satisfying. Attire, language, viewpoint, experience, training, color, culture—all these made a rich and gratifying mosaic: conversations easily begun but not so quickly concluded, shared moments over meals and valued time walking between meeting places, clapping to accompany lively South American melodies and intoning repetitive praises while catching the fragrance of incense, and understanding the “handicap” of those whose primary language is not English. The native tongue of the leader of my subsection was Dutch, and, as a missionary, her second language was Polynesian. Yet, the discussions, as well as the writing of the subsection document, were in English, her third language!

6. I conclude these observations in saying that I have never felt more at home in a large meeting. In too many Christian gatherings, one has to become an insider through lineage, tenure, or theological jargon, or else prove one’s worthiness before being welcomed. Here Christians came together in a spirit of openness, shared concern for the church and the world, and experienced collegiality. This is not to say that there were few disagreements and problems. But it is also true that my denominational family does not always speak for me, even when it presumes to speak for me. And, from time to time a member of the- church I serve is not pleased with something I say or do, or something the church say or does. The church, local or worldwide, cannot seek uniformity nor must we expect universal agreement, but we must stay together.

“The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures and, therefore, seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”